Daily Archives: 30 June 2004

Greater Armenia Impearled

To add depth to the brief mentions of Armenia on this blog and elsewhere, the wonderfully informative Impearls “proceeds to reveal its own look at medieval Armenian history, drawing from a now public-domain chapter in the first edition of the renowned Cambridge Medieval History, by early twentieth century French scholar of Armenia Frédéric Macler (1869-1938), Professor of Armenian for many years at the École nationale des Langues orientales vivantes, Paris.” I’ll post just a few paragraphs from each part. Visit Impearls for the rest, plus illustrations, maps, notes, and acknowledgments.


Lying across the chief meeting-place of Europe and Asia, Armenia suffered immeasurably more from the conflict of two civilisations than it profited by their exchange of goods and ideas. If the West penetrated the East under pressure from Rome, Byzantium, or crusading Eruope, if the East moved westwards, under Persian, Arab, Mongol, or Turk, the roads used were too often the roads of Armenia.

This was not all. East and West claimed and fought for control or possession of the country. Divided bodily between Rome and Persia in pre-Christian times, an apple of discord between Persia and the Byzantine Empire during the early part of the Middle Ages, Armenia for the rest of its national history was alternately the prey of Eastern and Western peoples. When the Armenian kingdom was strong enough to choose its own friends, it turned sometimes to the East, sometimes to the West. It drew its culture from both. But, belonging wholly neither to West nor to East, it suffered consistently at the hands of each in turn and of both together….

The Arab Conquest

… In this long period of foreign rule, the Armenians invariably found a change of masters a change for the worse. The Persians ruled the country th{r}ough a succession of Marzpans, or military commanders of the frontiers, who also had to keep order and to collect revenue. With a strong guard under their own command, they did not destroy the old national militia nor take away the privileges of the nobility, and at first they allowed full liberty to the Katholikos and his bishops. As long as the Persians governed with such tolerance, they might fairly hope to fuse the Armenian nation with their own. But a change of religious policy under Yezdegerd II and Piroz roused the Armenians to defend their faith in a serious of religious wars lasting until the end of the sixth century, during which Vardan with his 1036 companions perished for the Christian faith in the terrible battle of Avaraïr (454). But, whether defeated or victorious, the Armenians never exchanged their Christianity for Zoroastrianism….

Shortly after the Arab conquest, the Armenians turned once more to their old masters, the Greeks. With the help of Leo the Isaurian, Smbat (Sempad) Bagratuni defeated the Arabs, and was commissioned to rule Armenia by the Emperor. But after a severe struggle the Muslims regained their dominion, and sent the Arab commander Qâsim to punish the Armenians (704). He carried out his task with oriental ferocity. He set fire to the church of Nakhijevan, into which he had driven the princes and nobles, and then pillaged the country and sent many of the people into captivity….

Recovery and Independence

As the long period of gloom, faintly starred by calamitous victories, passed into the ninth century, the Arab oppression slowly lightened. The Abbasid Empire was drawing to its fall. While the Arabs were facing their own troubles, the Armenian nobility were founding principalities. The Mamikonian family, it is true, died out in the middle of the ninth century without founding a kingdom. Yet, because they had no wide territories, they served Armenia disinterestedly, and though of foreign origin could claim many of the national heroes of their adopted country: Vasak, Mushegh, and Manuel, three generals of the Christian Arsacidae; Vardan, who died for the faith in the religious wars; Vahan the Wolf and Vahan Kamsarakan, who fought the Persians; David, Grigor, and Mushegh, rebels against Arab misrule…. Many other principalities were also formed, each claiming independence, the largest and most important of them all being the kingdom of the Bagratuni.

Like the Mamikonians, the Bagratuni seem to have come from abroad…. The Bagratuni were also wealthy. Unlike the Mamikonians, they owned vast territories, and founded a strong principality in the country of Ararat. Their wealth, their lands, and their history made them the most powerful of Armenian families and pointed out to them a future more memorable than their past. Midway in the ninth century, the power of the Bagratuni was inherited by Prince Ashot. The son of Smbat the Confessor, he refounded the ancient kingdom of Armenia and gave it a dynasty of two centuries’ duration. Under the rule of the Bagratuni kings Armenia passed through the most national phase of its history. It was a conquered province before they rose to power, it became more European and less Armenian after their line was extinct. Like Ashot himself, his descendants tried at first to control the whole of Armenia, but from 928 onwards they were obliged to content themselves with real dominion in their hereditary lands and moral supremacy over the other princes. This second and more peaceful period of their rule was the very summer of Armenian civilisation. [See Map of Bagratid Kingdoms in Armenia (964-1064).] …

The Arabs return, but are driven out

Under Smbat I (892-914) the lesser princes did more mischief than under his father Ashot because they made common cause with the Arabs of Azerbâ’îjân, who hated Armenia. For more than twenty years Smbat held his kingdom against the persistent attacks, now separate, now connected, of the Ostikans of Azerbâ’îjân and of the Armenian princes, and for more than a generation he and his son looked perforce to the Greeks as their only source of external help….

To thwart the new-born power of Armenia, Yûsuf [Ostikan of Azerbâ’îjân,] crowned a rival king and provoked a fierce civil war, which was finally ended through the mediation of John, the Katholikos. Many other internal revolts followed, but Ashot suppressed them all, and Yûsuf turned aside to attack the peaceful kingdom of Van. Here, too, he was unsuccessful, but he appointed a new Ostikan of Armenia. The purpose of this new Ostikan and of his successor Bêshir was to capture the Armenian king and the Katholikos. But Ashot retired to the island of Sevan, and built ten large boats. When Bêshir marched against him with a strong army, he manned each boat with seven skilled archers and sent them against the enemy. Every Armenian arrow found its mark, the Arabs took to flight, and were pursued with slaughter as far as Dwin by Prince Gêorg Marzpetuni, Ashot’s faithful supporter. After this epic resistance, Ashot left Sevan in triumph, and took the title “King of Kings of Armenia” in token of his superiority to the other Armenian princes. He died in 928.

(Mostly) Peace and prosperity

Two reigns of perpetual warfare were followed by nearly a century of comparative peace (928-1020). Ashot’s successors were content with more modest aims. At home they confined their real rule to their own patrimony and exercised only a moral sway over the other Armenian States. Abroad they sought the favour of the Arabs, rather than that of the Greeks. In this way alone was it possible to secure a measure of peace….

Armenian culture was pre-eminently ecclesiastical. Its literature did include chronicles and secular poems, but was overwhelmingly religious as a whole. Armenian manuscripts, famous alike for their antiquity, their beauty, and their importance in the history of writing, are nearly all ecclesiastical. Most interesting of all in many ways (especially for the comparison of text and variant readings) are the numerous copies of the Gospels. The Moscow manuscript (887) is the earliest Armenian manuscript actually dated, and two very beautiful Gospels of a later date are those of Queen Melkê and of Trebizond. A collection of theological and other texts executed between 971 and 981 is their earliest manuscript written on paper. Other important writings were dogmatic works, commentaries, and sharakans or sacred songs composed in honour of church festivals. Armenian art, again, was mainly ecclesiastical, and survives, on the one hand in the illuminations and miniatures which adorn the sacred texts, and, on the other, in the ruined churches and convents which still cover the face of the country. Architecture was military as well as ecclesiastical, but it is hard not to believe that the people of Ani were prouder of their galaxy of churches than they were of their fortress, their walls, and their towers….

Greeks and Turks

Two generations of misfortune (1020-1079) opened with civil war. Gagik had left two sons. His successor John-Smbat (1020-1040), timid and effeminate, was attacked and defeated by his younger and more militant brother Ashot, who was helped by Senekherim Arcruni, King of Vaspurakan (Van). Peace was concluded through the mediation of the Katholikos Petros Getadartz and Giorgi, King of the Georgians, but only by a division of territory. John-Smbat kept Ani and its dependencies, while Ashot took the part of the kingdom next to Persia and Georgia (Iberia). On the death of either brother the country was to be re-united under the survivor….

By the end of the eleventh century not a vestige remained of Byzantine dominion over Armenia. The Greeks saw too late the fatal consequences of their selfish hostility towards a country which on south and east might have served them as a rampart against their most dangerous foe.

Little Armenia and Aftermath

The national history of Greater Armenia ended with the Turkish conquest and with the extinction of the Bagratuni line. Little by little, numbers of Armenians withdrew into the Taurus mountains and the plateau below, but though their country rose again from ruin, it was only as a small principality in Cilicia. The fruits of Armenian civilisation — the architectural splendour of Ani, the military strength of Van, the intellectual life of Kars, the commercial pride of Bitlis and Ardzen — were no more….

After the Turkish victory of 1453, Mahomet II founded an Armenian colony in Constantinople and placed it under the supervision of Joakim, the Armenian Bishop of Brûsa, to whom he afterwards gave the title of “Patriarch” with jurisdiction over all the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. From that time to this, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople has carrried on the work of the Katholikos and has been the national representative of the Armenian people.

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